‘The Spectacular Now’: Looking ahead

July 29, 2013

spectacular now

It’s the rare teen-ager who can see beyond tomorrow. While they may worry about the future, they tend to live in the moment because, among other things, they feel immortal and most have little evidence to the contrary.

Certainly that’s the case with Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), the high-school senior at the center of James Ponsoldt’s touching, if familiar, “The Spectacular Now,” opening Friday (8/2/13) in limited release. Sutter is the ultimate party animal in his high school in little Athens, Ga.: the smooth-talking guy who everyone knows is good for a laugh, a quip or a solid.

Still, Miles – a child of divorce with obvious father issues and, as we learn, bad genes – has been thrown for a loop. As graduation approaches, he’s been dumped by his longtime girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), who tells him she wants to plan for the future, rather than simply living for the moment, as Miles does.

Even as he works lackadaisically at filling out his college applications, Miles is at loose ends. He wakes up after one particular drunken night on the front lawn of a classmate he barely knows: Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley). It’s 6 a.m. and she’s about to do her mother’s paper route. The free-wheeling Sutter accompanies her and ends up eating lunch with her later that day at school – much to everyone’s surprise.

Because, obviously, Sutter is a player and, just as obviously, Aimee isn’t. But there’s something about her: the way she listens to Sutter, the appreciation she seems to have for just being noticed, let alone noticed by someone like Sutter. Before long, she’s sharing nips from his hip flask and agreeing to attend prom with him.

There’s more: rows with his crabby, overworked mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a trip to see his long-absent father (Kyle Chandler), the occasional nod from the ex-girlfriend that seems to indicate a lingering interest. And, oh yeah, that hip flask.

Which is, in a sense, the film’s real subject. In the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber (the team that wrote “(500) Days of Summer”), Sutter is a teen drinker, the son of an alcoholic who self-medicates on a regular basis. It keeps him from having to be too serious about anything and, obviously, also gets in the way. He lives for the moment and the drinking keeps him from having to look too far beyond that.

Drinking was also at the center of Ponsoldt’s “Smashed,” a small gem from 2012. That was more a film about recovery and what it means; “Spectacular Now” could be a prequel or an alternative past for the characters in that film.

Here, the filmmaker is focusing on a kid who is not the kind of full-blown drunk his father is revealed to be. But he’s getting there. Sutter’s got a good heart and, as played by the slightly gawky but lovable Teller, his future has not yet been written. His choices haven’t been great up to this point, but he isn’t on an irrevocable path.

Ponsoldt never leans on any of this too hard. The flask is just there; Sutter is rarely obviously drunk, just happy and upbeat in the way that you are in the early stages of that kind of buzz. Teller never overplays the drinking – either its effects or Sutter’s apparent need for it as a buffer against life’s disappointments. He gives a performance that is natural and touching.

He’s matched by Woodley, so good in “The Descendants,” as the perpetual wallflower just waiting to bloom. Larson is also good as the smart girl who has grown tired of the perpetual party that Sutter represents. Sutter wants to live it all right now; she wants to look at tomorrow and the day and years after that.

“The Spectacular Now” doesn’t find new ground but finds new ways to make this story feel personal and involving. That’s no small thing, in a movie that will touch you in unexpected ways.

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